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BBC to begin disciplinary action after reporting debacle
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LONDON, Nov 13 (Agencies): Facing the deepest challenge to its status, prestige and self-confidence in years, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported on Tuesday that disciplinary action was beginning against unidentified news personnel linked to a scandal over reporting of child abuse that wrongly implicated a senior Conservative Party politician.

Coming only weeks after the BBC, Britain’s public broadcaster, became embroiled in a separate abuse scandal relating to longtime television host Jimmy Savile, the combined effect of the two debacles has been to plunge the organization into a bout of recrimination, public criticism and doubt over its ability to restore its image of probity and reliability.

Both episodes relate to the flagship “Newsnight” current affairs television program. The scandal has forced the resignation of George Entwistle, the BBC’s director general who acts as both editor in chief and chief executive. Two other senior executives have withdrawn temporarily from their jobs.

Additionally, a decision by the supervisory BBC Trust to award Mr. Entwistle a payoff equivalent to $750,000 — twice the contractual obligation — has drawn howls of protests from politicians, newspaper columnists and rank-and-file BBC staff members.

The disciplinary action against the news executives followed the publication late on Monday of a report by Ken MacQuarrie, the director of BBC Scotland, into a program by “Newsnight” falsely implicating Alistair McAlpine, a former Conservative Party treasurer, in sexual abuse at a children’s home in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.

The report said the editorial management of “Newsnight” had already been weakened by the Savile affair a year ago in which the program canceled an investigation into sexual abuse by Mr. Savile, who died in October 2011 at age 84, and who is now accused of decades of sexual abuse involving around 300 young people, some of it on BBC premises.

After that scandal began to unfold in October, Peter Rippon, the “Newsnight” editor, withdrew from his job, leaving the “editorial leadership of the team under very considerable pressure,” the MacQuarrie report said.

“As a consequence there was ambiguity around who was taking the ultimate editorial responsibility” for the second contentious “Newsnight” report on Nov. 2, the report said, “particularly in the days leading up to the day of transmission.”

“During the editorial decision-making process, some of the basic journalistic checks were not completed,” it said in what has been taken as a damning indictment. Specifically, “identification was not confirmed by photograph,” the report said and “no right of reply was offered to the unnamed individual at the center of the allegation.”

Additionally, “There was a different understanding by the key parties about where the responsibility lay for the final editorial signoff for the story on the day.”

The BBC said the report “will be used to inform disciplinary proceedings which will begin immediately.” But, it said, “clearly we will not discuss the details of these indivual cases.”

“Newsnight” prepared its segment on child abuse in conjunction with the privately financed Bureau of Investigative Journalism, whose managing editor, Iain Overton, also resigned on Monday.

The MacQuarrie report was released hours after the BBC said its director of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, had “stepped aside.”

The BBC management said that while neither Ms. Boaden nor Mr. Mitchell “had anything at all to do with the failed ‘Newsnight’ investigation” on Nov. 2, it “believes there is a lack of clarity in the lines of command and control in BBC News” because of a separate inquiry into the Savile affair. The BBC said the two executives would step aside until the end of that investigation, which is being conducted by Nick Pollard, a former head of the rival Sky News.

The BBC said its head of news gathering, Fran Unsworth, and Ceri Thomas, the editor of the current affairs radio program “Today,” would fill in for the executives who stepped aside. The BBC also appointed Karen O’Connor, a former deputy editor of “Newsnight” and the investigative “Panorama” program, as acting editor of “Newsnight.”

But furor continued to build on several fronts. Prime Minister David Cameron’s office, other government ministers and opposition Labour figures displayed a rare unity in challenging the payoff to Mr. Entwistle as “hard to justify.” Lord Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, said the payout was designed to avoid “long drawn-out discussions and continuing uncertainty.”

Lord Patten himself has come under pressure to quit, but Mr. Cameron’s office said Monday that “The important thing is for Chris Patten to lead the BBC out of its present difficulties. That has to be the priority at the moment.”

Tim Davie, 45, an executive with a background in marketing who is director of the BBC’s radio operations, is to serve as the acting director general. In an interview posted by the BBC, Mr. Davie also said he would take a short period to deliberate.

“I’ve just got into the job,” he said. “I’m going to take a bit of time to look through the recommendations, and then we’ll take the disciplinary process through and be fair to those individuals.” He added: “The BBC has lost a director-general in this process. That in itself is very significant and he has taken responsibility.”

Mr. Entwistle had been director general of the BBC for less than two months when the scandals began to unfold. He had succeeded Mark Thompson who stepped down in September after accepting an offer to become president and chief executive of The New York Times Company, a post he took up on Monday. He has said that he knew nothing beforehand about the “Newsnight” investigation of Mr. Savile or the decision to scrap it, but that he is willing to answer any questions from investigators.

In a message to the staff of The Times on Monday, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher and board chairman, welcomed Mr. Thompson without alluding to the crisis at the BBC. “Mark will lead us as we continue our digital transformation, bolster our international growth, drive our productivity and introduce new technologies that will help us become better storytellers and enrich the experience for our readers and viewers,” he wrote. “That is what he did as Director-General of the BBC. His experience will be of great value to our company as we continue our pursuit of creating the highest quality journalism and the business results to support it.”


News Updated at : Wednesday, November 14, 2012
 
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